The Community Veterans History Project (VHP) is an oral history project based in the University of Central Florida’s history department that is digitally preserving the stories of Florida veterans for future generations and connecting students, veterans, and the local community through programming.
VHP is led by Associate Professor of History Barbara Gannon and Tiffany Rivera, program coordinator of educational and training programs for the history department. With UCF’s large student veteran population of nearly 1,500 and the history department’s strong emphasis on military history, the program came out of a desire to respect the local and campus communities’ service and sacrifices. Gannon, herself a veteran, began collecting oral histories of veterans in 2011 with a team of student interns. With valuable funding support from the Anne J. Caudal Foundation--whose mission is to fund projects that benefit disabled veterans--and key technical support from the department of history and UCF’s Regional Initiative for Collecting the Histories, Experiences, and Stories program (RICHES), VHP has collected nearly 700 interviews and continues to increase in size and scope. Over time, the project has not only collected veterans’ stories but has trained students in oral history methods and created affirming spaces for the region’s veteran population through a range of programming.
Classes in oral history methods and veterans histories help students connect with the nation’s history with war. “Many of my students were born a year or two before 9/11. So it's all history to them. And one of the things they take away through both talking and research is a profound understanding that there's a whole lot more going on than they covered in their textbooks,” says Gannon. Through connecting with veterans’ stories, students also learn how to shape narratives of their own lives and families, with some students drawing parallels between histories of service and histories of immigration and migration. Learning how to conduct oral history interviews also provides students with valuable skills, including how to navigate difficult conversations and honor the language and specifics of a veteran’s time in service. “Oral history to me is an ultimate part of a humanities education. It is a phenomenal way of understanding human beings in all their diversity and commonalities,” Gannon offers.
Student interns working on the project, some with a background in military service and others without, understand that their role is integral to promoting trust and familiarity with participating veterans. “A lot of students walk away with this being a memorable experience because they've spent time talking to someone about their experiences and that's new to them. Their eyes are big and they feel like they've made a difference,” Rivera notes. Rivera remembers one student intern in particular who conducted an interview with a veteran who passed away two weeks later. “He was so touched and honored that he had that last conversation, that he was a part of capturing those memories for the family.”
Gannon and Rivera note the diversity of stories represented by VHP’s collection. “All of our interviews are so different and that's honestly what we want,” Rivera notes. “Our goal is to capture different stories because service is not just one thing.” Some veterans interviewed made a career out of service, some never saw combat, and some only served for short periods of time. Gannon remarks that despite coming from a range of backgrounds, the collected interviews often illuminate the immense pride veterans take in their service. “Veterans understand that they don't have to forget their diversity and their challenges. Women for example understand that they may have had a very difficult time in service because of their gender, but they all come out very proud of their service. Despite racial or gender issues, there are very few cases where it didn't bring them a certain unity and connection with the nation and the nation at its best, at its best ideals.”
VHP has provided opportunities for veterans and community members to gather together to discuss shared experiences. Seeing the public as equal members in the process of story collection, VHP has hosted regular peer-to-peer training programs that provide community members with the skills to conduct oral history interviews. In addition, what started as a VHP-led week honoring Veterans across UCF’s campus has over the years expanded to a Veterans Month, a campus-wide effort that has included speaker series, symposia, and a play that sourced material from the VHP’s oral history collection. Through a collaboration with the Central Florida Yellow Ribbon Project during Veterans Month, in 2018 VHP hosted the Yellow Ribbon Project on campus with the help of a local artist. Using yellow ribbon, students macramed thirty trees lining UCF’s Memory Mall in an effort to raise funds from departments and centers on campus toward a “school supply vault” for the school’s student veteran population of over 1500 students.
Given the sensitivity that veterans stories can require, Rivera has worked hard to cultivate a sense of trust with the Central Florida veteran community. In order to build trust with UCF’s student veteran population, the VHP employs student veteran interns involved with the project to encourage their veteran classmates to participate in the project. A number of programs and centers on campus have joined in these efforts, including the Veterans Academic Resource Center, the Air Force and Army ROTC, and off campus at the Orlando VA Medical Center at Lake Nona. Collaborating with these specialized hubs on campus not only demonstrates a commitment to veterans’ specific needs, but also helps spread the word about support services across UCF’s community. A key part of this trust work is also taking the project off campus, and traveling with student interns to senior living facilities in the region to do “History Days” with the veterans living in the community. History Days with defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon offer veteran employees a chance to share their stories. A recently launched collaboration with Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will highlight the stories of veterans working in agriculture, as many in the armed forces welcome employment that requires laboring with their hands after their time in service. To keep up to date on issues impacting local veterans and build partnerships across the region, Rivera also attends monthly meetings with the Orange County Veterans Advisory Council.
The far reaching nature of this project, Rivera ultimately notes, is its key strength. “The heart of this project always comes back to the humanity found in it. It's taking the time to connect in a way that's unique and important from a scholarly perspective, but also connecting in a way that's meaningful for families, veterans, and students.”